Film Review: Eye in the Sky (★★★)

eye_in_the_skyA very timely and almost unbearably tense military drama/political thriller, Eye in the Sky is the first film I can remember to effectively take on the issue of drone warfare. Director Gavin Hood is obviously very passionate about the ongoing debate about the use of drones and manages to reflect that in a movie that is as exciting as it is smart. Occasionally things become a little too on the nose or overly dramatic, but by and large Hood does a tremendous job of roping you in to what it must be like when a drone strike is potentially going down. To be fair, he’s stacked the deck in his favor with an A list cast that includes Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, and the late Alan Rickman, in one of his final roles, but wouldn’t you do the same? Considering how strong the ensemble is, it’s a wise move by Hood, to say the least. They help elevate an already good flick and make Eye in the Sky something that approaches greatness at times. The ending is a bit problematic and you can sometimes see the wheels of the screenplay turning, but those are small issues. This is an important film, though also a very entertaining one as well. Eye in the Sky is flying in a bit below the radar, but it deserves your attention.

The movie begins by introducing us to the characters we’ll be following over the course of the next two hours or so. Our entry point is Col. Katherine Powell (Mirren), the British commander of a drone operation in Kenya. From her U.K. based compound, she heads up a joint mission with the United States to capture a top tier terrorist. We also meet a higher up in the British military, one Lt. General Frank Benson (Rickman) the American drone pilot, Steve Watts (Paul), his co-pilot Carrie Gershon (Phoebe Fox), an agent on the ground (Barkhad Abdi), as well as a little girl in Kenya. The girl is notable because she enters the targeted zone just as a strike is about to be ordered. Thus begins the crux of Eye in the Sky, which is the morality and risk analysis of drones. The entire second half of the film observes as the higher ups try and figure out what to do and debate the right course of action. It might sound a bit dry, but trust me when I say that it’s incredibly compelling.

This is pretty much an ensemble piece, but ostensibly the lead of Eye in the Sky is Helen Mirren, and she’s at the top of her game. She’s incredibly stoic and reserved, but with a forcefulness of ideals behind her that makes the character tremendously interesting. Some will see her as a hero, some will see her as a villain, but just about everyone will see her as a soldier. It’s not the flashier work we saw from her last year in Trumbo, but I’d argue this is far better. Aaron Paul and Alan Rickman are reserved as well, with both putting forward different sides of the debate. Paul has a slightly smaller part, while Rickman is his reliable self and will be greatly missed. Barkhad Abdi is underused, with the same going for Phoebe Fox, but both are still pretty solid. Also in the cast are Babou Ceesay, Monica Dolan, Kim Engelbrecht, Vusi Kunene, Richard McCabe, Jeremy Northam, and more, though it’s the trio of Mirren, Paul, and Rickman who stand out, with Mirren taking center stage.

Director Gavin Hood turns in his best work in some time here. The man who made a name for himself with Tsotsi had more or less turned into a journeyman with the disappointing likes of Rendition, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and Ender’s Game, but this is a real return to form. Hood takes a screenplay by Guy Hibbert and gives it far more of a visual style than you’d expect. He really takes you down on the ground, looking at just what a drone does and what it sees. From time to time Hibbert’s script goes too far in the name of creating tension, but Hood always brings us back. It’s a quietly accomplished bit of directing that will surely get him higher profile work once again. Whatever side of the coin you fall on in regard to drone strikes, the filmmakers allow you to leave this picture feeling as though your opinion has been validated, and that’s no small task. Hood also has an excellent sense of pacing here, keeping the movie from dragging or rushing through any of the numerous developments in the mission. With a script slightly less prone to theatrics, this might have even turned into an awards contender down the road.

Had Eye in the Sky been able to avoid the impulse to just stretch out the mission, I might have given this an even more enthusiastic recommendation. As it stands now, I still think this is a good to very good film. It just probably could have been an outstanding one. That’s nothing to hold you back from seeing this one though, as it’s well worth your time. Especially if this is a political issue to you, or if you weren’t blown away by last year’s drone flick Good Kill, Eye in the Sky is something to seek out. You’ll be glad that you did.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!